When there was a debate held in this office to discuss who would be the 10 World Cup legends to grace the sports pages, suggestions came flowing in. Ferenc Puskas, Ronaldo (the original one), Johan Cruyff, Pele, Garrincha... You get the drift, right? All of them had made the World Cup the biggest month-long theatre once every four years in the 20th century. But where are the boys of the 21st century? Four World Cups (from South Korea and Japan to Brazil) is a sufficient sample size but not a single millennial was mentioned.
That, in itself, is indicative of how much the sport has changed in two decades. World Cups made players then. It makes teams today. Even the most famous systems of the bygone era revolved around that one great player (Puskas made the Golden Squad, while without Cruyff there would have been no total football). Andres Iniesta was very much the light in 2010 but tiki-taka and that structure centred around the use of the ball was its source. Italy’s 23-man team in 2006 had flair but defensive organisation (Fabio Cannavaro is the only defender to have been nominated for the Golden Ball Award across the last three editions), fast counters and a never-say-die attitude made them a sum greater than their parts.
The Brazil team of 2002 allowed for the collective insouciance of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, but even they played with a double pivot of Gilberto Silva and Kleberson, who replaced Juninho Paulista during the knockout stages. That tournament paved the way for change. Limited but studious teams trumpeted systems revolving around proper discipline and it accounted for Portugal, France and Argentina, three of the pre-tournament favourites, in the group stage. Sixteen years later, and the winds felt in Asia’s first football party are still blowing in the same direction.
Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are three of the most widely recognisable and richest athletes the sport has to offer but it’s not a dead cert that they will illuminate the Cup like their compatriots did in decades past. Developed systems where team identity is king has given the last four winners and it’s no surprise that Spain and Germany are two of the pre-tournament favourites. How the former dismantled Argentina 6-1 in a friendly in March had its roots in a well-defined ideology. How did the sport reach this stage? Thanks to the growing influence of club football and its globalised nature, everyone knows everyone. There are no secrets.
For example: when Belgium play England in the group stage, 20 of the 46 players will come from three clubs (Man City, Man United and Spurs). Also, saturation coverage and non-stop football means coaches of all countries have detailed dossiers of all teams, complete with an A/V guide of how to stop Messi, Neymar & Co. If recent trends — 2015 and 2016 Copa America and Euros — are anything to go by, expect the same fare in Russia. There is a platform for the best to individually drag teams up to a certain point like Messi, Arjen Robben, Oliver Kahn and Wesley Sniejder have done this century. To get over that line, though, you need the best to merely service the engine when the going gets tough. Not be the engine itself.